Kona Kitchen: Ono Grinds in Seattle

Loco moco is not the first thing I’d normally order when breakfasting in Hawaii. Steamed white rice topped with a fried egg and brown gravy sound tasty enough, not so different in concept from an egg benedict really. It’s the ground beef patty that gives me pause, the potential always there for lean and rubbery meat like many a burger. Even the celebrated loco moco from Rainbow Drive-In (Honolulu) failed to impress. It’s not that I don’t like beef patties (I do); it’s just in combination with rice that doesn’t do it for me. Go figgah.

I had lunch at Kona Kitchen recently, which many consider the best Hawaiian restaurant in Seattle. On the menu was the classic loco moco. For lunch, there’s also katsu loco. Instead of ground beef, rice is topped with battered and fried chicken thighs. More than that, you have the option to substitute fried rice for white. Yowza! To me, this sounded much more appealing.

The serving size is hefty. The waiter hinted it would be a challenge to finish. Was he right. Crispy chicken katsu and an over-easy egg sat on a bed of Hawaiian-style fried rice. We’re talking an enormous quantity, an umami bomb of soy sauce-laced rice mixed with little cubes of Spam, barbecued pork and green onions. And that divine gravy! Though the rice is softer than I like, this dish alone should put Kona Kitchen on the culinary map. This couldn’t be better made on the islands.

Mochiko chicken is marinated and sweetened with sugar, batter and fried. Kona Kitchen’s is good, with hints of ginger, served with two scoops of white rice and a very good mac salad. A few nuggets were a bit dry.

Mochiko chicken

The menu also has saimin, that favorite of Hawaiian noodle soups. It also has wonton min that adds housemade wonton dumplings with the noodles, and includes a hard-cooked egg and barbecued pork. The noodles are cooked to the soft stage as Hawaiians like it.

Wonton min

On the menu are lots of Hawaiian faves, including pork lau laukalua pigHawaiian-style beef stew, Spam and Portuguese sausage as ingredients for a number of dishes, Hawaiian sweet bread. It will be tough for me to stay away from the katsu loco though. Fortunately, my daughter lives close by so sampling these other dishes is but a short drive away.

Kona Kitchen
8501 Fifth Ave NE
Seattle, WA

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The day was perfect for exploring at Cape Kiwanda. From the rocky shore, it’s natural to look out to sea.

Santa Maria-Style BBQ at Far Western Tavern (Orcutt, CA)

For the past several years, it was a goal of mine to sample barbecued beef in the Santa Maria Valley along California’s Central Coast. But, the opportunity never came for one reason or another during the long drives between Seattle and Los Angeles. Either the timing was not right or we were in a hurry to get somewhere else. That would change today as we were headed out of L.A. en route to Monterey and we would be in the valley around lunchtime.

Why Santa Maria-style barbecue isn’t as well known as its Midwestern or Southern cousins is not clear. Maybe a lot has to do with what Americans envision as being quintessential barbecue—meats slow-cooked or smoked and slathered with sauce. The valley did not start out its tradition with pork, by far the preferred meat for American grills. Instead, it was and still is beef, these days typically top sirloin and tri-tip, rubbed with salt, pepper and garlic powder, then cooked over flaming red oak, which is abundant along California’s Central Coast. There is no barbecue sauce. Because of its beginnings in the old days of California’s rancheros and vaqueros, essential parts of the barbecue tradition are beans and salsa that evolved with their distinct regional styles. Salsas are more mild, tempered by the Europeans who moved into the area, and the beans are made with pinquitos that are native to the Santa Maria Valley.

I began to wonder early on if some unseen force was trying to prevent me from completing my mission. My choice was Roundup Market in Santa Ynez (in the middle of the Chumash Indian reservation), a short drive north of Santa Barbara. We drove up to shuttered doors and a “for sale” sign. It must’ve closed for good sometime in 2014. Not to worry because Hitching Post II was not far away in Buellton. We pulled up, only to find out from an employee that it opens only for dinner. Next, we headed for Far Western Tavern in Santa Maria in the heart of where the first barbecue restaurants opened in the 1950s. We were flustered when all we saw were a Jack in the Box and car wash on the corner where our GPS took us. Fortunately, a local told us where it was actually located in Old Town Orcutt, just blocks west. Another rare time that our Garmin failed us. All of this rigmarole took a good hour.

Far Western Tavern is one of three, legendary restaurants (Hitching Post and Jocko’s being the others) that started serving Santa Maria-style barbecued meats in the late 1950s, to commercialize the long tradition of what before was cooked only at social gatherings and fund raisers, much like huli huli chicken in Hawaii. The Santa Maria Elks were the primary practitioners of this mobile form of cooking (fire pits on wheels). Far Western Tavern moved a few years ago to Santa Maria from Guadalupe, a small town about 10 miles west of Santa Maria, and home to La Simpatia that our waiter Emmanuel claimed serves the best, most authentic Mexican food in the valley. What a coincidence, for we ate there in 2009, at which time the tavern must’ve still been located there.

The restaurant is very large. At the front is the bar. Toward the back is the more formal dining area, though it has a distinct western decor, including mounted steer horns, dark wood paneling and furnishings covered in cowhide. The menu is pricey, what one expects at a good steakhouse nowadays. This is a far cry from the informality of neighborhood cookouts and Elks fund-raisers where I suspect the prices are more down-to-earth. At lunchtime at least, a steak sandwich lets you try the Santa Maria-style in more affordable fashion.

Far Western Tavern bar

Far Western Tavern bar

As it was, our Rancher (☆☆☆), an 8-oz. ‘cowboy cut’ top sirloin sandwich, which we split with a nice, classic Caesar salad, was still $20. A basket of complimentary house-made potato chips was served. I made the mistake of ordering the steak ‘medium,’ when I should’ve asked for medium-rare. The steak was nicely seasoned and tasty but a bit dry with no pink in the center. There was none of the succulence that made these steaks famous. A rib-eye sandwich was also on the lunch menu, but I was determined to sample the ‘classic’ cut. The bread was the traditional slice of grilled garlic French bread, dipped in butter.

Complimentary house-made potato chips

Complimentary house-made potato chips

The Rancher, served with salsa and soup of the day (tomato-basil)

No Santa Maria barbecue would be complete without pinquito beans. Small and flavorful in their own right, they have the remarkable ability to maintain firmness and plumpness through long cooking times. FWT’s beans are simply prepared with water, bacon and ‘pinquito seasoning,’ which means a propriety blend. The beans might seem bland when compared to traditional barbecued beans, but their straightforwardness complemented the steak nicely.

Pinquito beans

Pinquito beans

In the future, we’d like to pass through the area on a weekend when the cookouts happen and enjoy the barbecue as it was meant to be experienced, in the outdoors and a community setting.

Far Western Tavern
300 E Clark Ave
Old Town Orcutt (Santa Maria), CA

Lunch at Los Agaves (Santa Barbara, CA)

Every one of us can recall when one of our favorite restaurants closes its doors for good. It’s all the more upsetting when it was responsible for introducing you to a defining dish, one that stays in your memory long after you’ve had it, one that hasn’t been matched by any restaurant since. Such was the case with the molcajete made by a Mexican restaurant in a small town in the redwood country of Northern California. Sometime last year, La Hacienda shut down operations in Orick. I had been anticipating a return visit on this current road trip before a Yelper mentioned its demise.

Why this drawn-out lament? I discovered that Los Agaves in Santa Barbara claims molcajete as one of its specialties, in fact, the first item under Especialidads. So while I confirmed with my own eyes that La Hacienda was dark as I drove through Orick two days ago, I at least had Los Agaves to look forward to.

Only a block from the disappointing La Super Rica, Los Agaves is not a terribly big place though it does have an interesting layout with side rooms, tiled floor and paintings on the walls. The sense of being rushed to order was off-putting: as soon as you enter, you must study the paper menu and specials on the blackboard, then place your order at the counter. With only a couple of customers ahead of us, there wasn’t much time. I knew what I wanted but my wife felt pressured to make a decision, not a good way to start a dining experience. You’re given a number, then take a seat somewhere in the restaurant. Chips and salsa, water and silverware are brought to your table.

The molcajete (☆☆☆) here was served in a cast-iron bowl, surprising since images posted on Yelp showed them in the namesake lava rock vessels. A minor matter. Called Earth and Sea, the entrée had beef strips, chicken breast cut into little cubes, shrimp and fish with a single roasted yellow chile and a grilled onion stalk, topped with an artfully sliced avocado half. Tomato sauce thickened the tasty broth, spicy, herbal and savory. The house-made corn tortillas were exceptional. This molcajete holds its own against the better-made versions. My standard is still the one once served in Orick.

My wife’s Taquitos Dorados (☆☆☆½) were unlike most taquitos: their generous filling of shredded chicken required only a roll and a half of the corn tortilla before being fried to crispy perfection, sliced in half and laid on top of a salad of shredded iceberg, chopped tomatoes and guacamole. These were meaty taquitos.

Our good friends preceded us here back in April and raved about their Chiles Norteños, another specialty, roasted poblano chiles sliced in half and filled with shrimp, chipotle salsa and Oaxacan cheese.

The food was great here, but the dining experience left a lot to be desired. Apart from the aforementioned ordering experience, it was quite loud. Many customers were here on their lunch hour, which exacerbated the circus atmosphere, and the wait staff and busboys rushing around and aggressively rearranging furniture were not conducive to a relaxing meal.

Earth and Sea Molcajete

Taquitos Dorados

Clockwise from top left: salsa quemada, salsa habañera, chips salsa, salsa aguacate

Clockwise from top left: sliced pickled jalapeños, salsa chipotle, salsa tomatillo and pico de gallo

Spectacular Elk

The small town of Elk, CA, population of just over 200, can boast that it has one of the most spectacular collection of sea stacks offshore. To the north on California Highway 1, there is a turnout high above the ocean that offers as dramatic a coastal view as you’ll ever see anywhere. Some of the massive sea stacks can be seen much closer from Elk Cove, which can be reached by a short trail from a parking area in the middle of town. The tide was relatively low so we could approach and enter some of the sea caves in the headland at the cove’s southern end.

In the parking area, we talked to a group of about a half dozen bicyclists who were in the middle of an epic journey that started in Reno and will end up in San Francisco.

View from the top of the trail to Elk Cove

View from the top of the trail to Elk Cove

Sea stacks in Elk Cove

Sea stacks in Elk Cove

Sea caves can be entered at low tide

Sea caves can be entered at low tide

Pygmies among Giants

In the middle of the vast redwood empire where the tallest living things on Earth live, a small section of Van Damme State Park just south of Mendocino features a pygmy forest. The trees are so small that their trunks can be only 1/4″ in diameter yet be almost a hundred years old. The forest is protected by the state of California. With soils no more recent than half to one million years old overlaying them, they have been leached of nutrients by rains ever since, creating an almost inhospitably acidic and hardpan environment that stunts the growth of two species of pine and the Mendocino cypress, causing some to use bonsai forest as a moniker. Other plants, including acid-loving California Rose Bay rhododendrons, normally achieving great heights in the redwood forest understory nearby, are also dwarfed.

An interpretive trail of boardwalk loops through the forest that can be reached either from the campground by trail or from a parking lot on the eastern edge of Van Damme.

Dwarf Mendocino cypress is only 3 feet in height though many years old

Dwarf Mendocino cypress is only 3 feet in height though many years old

Forest to Sea—Brookings to Mendocino

We had hoped to time our arrival to Brookings when the Easter lily fields would be in bloom. At least, that was what we were expecting after reading about the farms. Left to their own devices, they would naturally bloom in July. You’re probably wondering like I did, isn’t Easter-time their time to flower? It turns out that there is a labor-intensive science to forcing them to produce on Easter, which occurs annually on different dates. The bottom line is that we (or anyone else) wouldn’t ever see fields covered in white. Brookings and Harbor (across the Chetco River) grow 90 percent of the Easter lily crop in the U.S., the result of perfect conditions for bulb growing. We drove along Oceanside Drive where the farms are located. Eventually, we noticed the characteristic silver green foliage planted in neat rows. On closer look, there were the multiple leaves growing from each stalk.

Easter lily farm in Harbor, OR

Easter lily farm in Harbor, OR

Redwood trees were already in abundance here in southwestern Oregon. It was a short drive to the California state line.

Our next hope was that we would see the California Rose Bay Rhododendrons in Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park that were flowering relatively abundantly when we drove through here on June 10, 2009. There was nothing. Instead, the roadside was flush with lilies of a different kind—tiger lilies.

Tiger lilies in Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park

Tiger lilies in Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park

Damnation Creek Trail is the best in Del Norte, one that leads all the way to the Pacific Ocean if you want to negotiate the final very steep, strenuous, exposed root portion to the coast (we didn’t). Short of that, the trail still goes past old growth forest, some of them showing evidence of severe burn from lightning strikes. On the trail, we came across members of a photography workshop led by Issaquah photographer Darrell Gulin. It always seems a coincidence that people you sometimes meet along the way are from your own neck of the woods.

Old growth redwood, Damnation Creek Trail, Del Norte State Park

Old growth redwood, Damnation Creek Trail, Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park

For lunch, we stopped in Arcata at Hole in the Wall (590 G St, 707.822.7407), a sandwich shop in a little shack on a parking lot that is very popular among the locals. There was no seating inside, but there were a few tables and bench chairs outside. We enjoyed a muffaletta (☆☆☆), the special of the day, filled with Genoa and Italian salames, prosciutto, Provolone and Mozzarella cheeses, olive spread and roasted red bell pepper, simply dressed with oil and red vinegar, salt and pepper. All of HITW’s sandwiches are enormous, so splitting one was essential, all washed down with an intriguing tangerine wheet beer (☆☆☆), made by Lost Coast Brewery in nearby Eureka.

Tangerine beer


After this morning’s inland drive through California, we headed back to the coast on a winding, tortuous road, starting where California Highway 1 begins in the north at Leggett on US 101. A mere twenty miles took over an hour, despite what my GPS estimated (it assumed an incredulous 55mph on this stretch!). Memo to self: avoid this road next time. The change in scenery was dramatic from the thickly forested redwood empire to the beautiful coastal waters of northern California, with its own sea stacks to rival Oregon’s and treed with cypress and eucalyptus.

We arrived at our destination, Mendocino, in the late afternoon.

Brookings to Mendocino

Brookings to Mendocino (Google Maps)